Note: A slightly abbreviated version of this article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Family Chronicle Magazine
Lt. Mark L. Golden: A Case Study in WWII Research
Mary Kircher Roddy
The case presented below is an attempt to start with a tiny bit of information – six letters from one soldier to another, never mentioned for more than 60 years – and discover the story of a mission which achieved its objective, but at the ultimate cost. This strategy is particularly useful for World War II research, as it is the earliest war where we can actually speak to the men and women who served.
My father passed away in August 2008. Two years later, going through stuff from his house, I found a box I had never seen. Inside were newspaper clippings about love and faith and humor; a handful of photographs of my father in uniform in 1942, some with a girl on his arm; a couple of rocks from the desert where Dad had been stationed; and six letters, only one in an envelope, signed, “As ever, Mark.” There were no other letters in the box – none from his parents, nor any of the girls in the photos. Dad never spoke of Mark, but I had a brother, Mark. Perhaps these letters had something to do with his name…
I began to read through them. All but one were written on letterhead – “Officers’ Club, Camp Callan, California,” “Unites States Army Air Forces, Santa Ana Army Air Base,” and other locations. Only one had an envelope with a return address, “Lt. M. L. Golden.” A last name! The correspondent mentioned Christmas leave in San Francisco, “… Bob McCarthy & I did manage to hoist a few doubles before we visited the Kiernans… I didn’t see Gene O’Meara to speak to in San Francisco…” From the tone, it sounded like Mark might have been a college friend of Dad, so I pulled out his University of San Francisco yearbook and, bingo! there were McCarthy, Kiernan, O’Meara, Golden and Dad, all Second Lieutenants in the Coast Artillery Reserve.
In other letters, Mark mentioned brothers, Paul and Bill. I searched the 1930 census in San Francisco, and found William P. and Grace Golden and four children – William, Paul, Mark and Catherine. I wondered if I could find Mark, maybe call him and talk to him. I didn’t find any “likely” Mark Golden on the California Death Index or the SSDI. I took that as a good sign.
Trolling more databases, I found a record in “World War II and Korean Conflict Veterans Interred Overseas”: Mark L Golden, inducted from California, First Lieutenant 708th Bomber Squadron 447th Bomber, death date 18 Jun 1944, buried in the Netherlands. Ouch. I went back and finished reading through Mark’s letters to Dad. In the last letter I had, January 22, 1944 from Ardmore Army Air Base, he writes, “… our last station before the high seas & foreign duty – that is if we still have a war to win in April or so…I’m 1st pilot & airplane commander of a B-17 with 9 men to train & weld into a fighting unit that will bring me back after 25 or 50 missions over Europe. It sounds great, but from casualty reports of the 8th Air Force, I wonder sometimes just what I’m in for.” Five months later, Mark did not make it back. I had to know what happened.
I spent few minutes cursing myself for not having asked my father more about his WWII experiences. (Research strategy Number one – ask questions. Keep asking until you can’t think of any more to ask, then ask some more.) Then I got to work! Mark was a San Francisco boy. Surely The Chronicle would tell me all about his fate. That very evening I found myself at the local university library reading casualty lists from microfilmed newspapers. I saw hundreds of names, but never Mark Golden. Without more information on Mark’s mission, newspaper research would take a finer toothed comb than I had the patience for.
Mark didn’t make it back, but what about his brothers? I found SSDI records for Paul in 1997 and Bill in January 2009. I was 19 months too late to talk to Bill. (Research strategy Number Two – do it now, particularly with 20th century history. The people you want to talk to won’t be around forever.) But I found obituaries of both of these men, and lists of survivors. In Bill’s widow, Violet, I struck gold.
We spoke a few times on the phone. She never knew Mark, having met Bill after the war. Later she wrote to me of the high regard Bill held for him. She enclosed 3 letters – a newsy one from Mark to his parents dated April 16, 1944 as he was anticipating imminent deployment, a handwritten one from Alvin Long to Mrs. Golden dated June 19, 1945 and a typed letter from J.A. Walton-Black, dated 12 August 1945. It was from these latter two letters that I learned Mark’s fate.
Long, the navigator, wrote:
I have delayed writing this letter, hoping first to be able to receive more definite information. I have decided not to wait any longer, however, and to tell you as much of the story of the mission of June 18, 44 as I know to be of fact. In the morning of June 18, Mark took off on what was to be our seventh mission… On approaching our target we were hit by flack in the nose of our ship. Mark managed to keep our ship up in formation however, enabling McColgan, the bombardier to drop our bombs… Immediately after bombs away, we were hit again in the open bomb bay, injuring our radio operator and starting a fire in the radio room. A few seconds later we received our third direct hit, in the number two engine starting a gasoline fire. Mark gave orders to fight the fire with extinguishers but then seeing this was to no avail, gave the order over interphone to bail out. The engineer went out the nose first, McColgan followed and I followed him. On the ground, the Germans picked us up, and put us in solitary. I never saw Mark after I left the ship, but I have always had hopes that he had just evaded capture. This is all of the story that I saw myself… From that time until about May 5 of this year, I remained in a prisoner of war camp. Now I am at home with my wife and baby on a 60-day leave.
Long went on to extol Mark’s character and to thank Mrs. Golden for presents to his son and encouraging letters to his wife while he was in a POW camp. When Mrs. Golden sent those letters and gifts to Long’s family, did she know Mark had been killed or was he still MIA? Whatever the case, it exemplifies the kindness and charity which must have been present in Mark’s family as he grew up.
The three-page letter from J.A. Walton-Black exuded military bearing. He added details to the account provide by Long. “After the fire, which was terrific, had been fought unsuccessfully for some minutes… the pilot (your son, and my commanding officer and very dear friend), gave the order which undoubtedly saved the lives of his crew…” He explained that Mark was ready to bail out, but he was still struggling with his parachute straps. Mark was reluctant to jump first, but Walton-Black waved him on and indicated he would follow shortly. “In another moment, I had fixed my leg strap and followed. The smoke was now terrific, and I very nearly passed out. In the act of pulling myself through the hatch, I looked at my watch. Then, after my chute opened, I saw the plane peeling off, break in two, and blow up in several directions. I then checked my watch, and found it to be only 40 seconds after I had baled out. Thus you can see what would have happened, to all of us, if Mark had not made the right decision and given the order to “bail out” in time for everything to get clear...” After stating clearly all the facts, he wrote that it was his opinion that Mark exited the plane safely, but may have been killed or injured by landing on some obstruction, or by brutalities perpetrated by German civilians or S.S. troops.
Now hooked, I wanted to know about the rest of the crew. From these two letters, I had four names – Golden, Walton-Black, Long and McColgan. But in his letter, Mark had mentioned a crew of nine. I had more to find. Both Long and Walton-Black mentioned being in POW camps. I found a database of World War II Prisoners of War which included “Alvin W. Long, report date 18 June 1944, Area served: European Theatre and Detaining Country; Germany.” I searched, leaving the name blank but adding those other details. I got 1156 hits! No wonder The Chronicle was so full of war news! Undaunted, I examined each of the 1156 names and found Long, McColgan, Walton-Black, and 53 others, all with an incident date of 18 June 1944. Still too many names. I pondered how to determine which of those might be Mark’s crew.
Meanwhile I started searching for the three names I had. I found a newspaper article on-line about Alvin W. Long in a Chicago newspaper. In 1949, he received a law degree. The article named a wife, Ethelle, as well as children and parents. I located an SSDI record for Long in Florida in 2001. The Ancestry.com US Phone and Address database gave a phone number and when I ran it through the reverse phone search at Whitepages.com, I found Ethelle. She told me all about Alvin. They were married 1 January 1944 and he was shipped off to Europe that spring. His father received the telegram from the War Department that Long was missing – he was listed as next of kin because no one want a young, pregnant wife to be the one to get the dreaded telegram. Ethelle recollected that the bombardier “liked the night life” and the copilot was English. (Research tip 3 – take what you hear with a grain of salt; Walton-Black was born in Kentucky but it was his father, an Irishman, who served with the British army in WWI). Ethelle couldn’t help me with names of crew members.
I found a website, www.accident-report.com, which sells military aviation incident reports. For $31 I could buy a report for the mission of June 18, 1944, AIRCRAFT: B0-17G 43-37714, LOCATION: 16 km NE of Hildesheim, Germany, REMARKS: Shot down by anti-aircraft fire. This looked like Mark’s mission, but I couldn’t tell what would be in the report. I was reluctant to spend $31. Was there another way?
Searching on www.fold3.com using the aircraft number “43-37714” I found a 52-page report. There was the rest of the crew… Radio operator, John J. Kauffman, Jr.; Top Turret Gunner, Homer S. Howes; Ball Turret Gunner, Frederick Slater; Tail Gunner, Raymond Gaswint; Left Waist Gunner, Rudolph Gianoni; and Right Waist Gunner, Guido Valentine.
The report included a wealth of information - the name, rank, serial number of all the crew members and information on their next of kin; memos from Headquarters about the interrogation of Giannoni on the casualties, Valentine, Golden and Kauffman; Individual Casualty Questionnaires, detailing information reported by Walton-Black, Giannoni, Howes, and Long. Also included were several “Report on Capture of Members of Enemy Air Forces,” containing various notes, including that Gaswint “made no statements, insolent behaviour, speaks some German.”
The next of kin list was helpful in locating the crew, as I used census records to identify families, birth dates and places. SSDI records led me to the deaths of Gaswint in 2007, Valentine in 1997, McColgan in 1991, Walton-Black in 1975, and Howes in 1969. I found obituaries for Gaswint and McColgan, and spoke with McColgan’s son. Family trees on Ancestry.com gave me a death record for Kauffman in 1963.
My greatest successes came with the two living crew members, Slater and Giannoni. When I spoke with them, among the first thing each asked was, “What happened to Kauffman?” Slater had dragged him from the flames in the radio room, put a parachute on him and helped him to bail out through the waist escape hatch.
Giannoni meets weekly with other seniors to write their life stories. He sent me “The Life Story of Rudy Giannoni and the German Black Death March.” He included a map of Stalag Luft IV where he spent 7 months, before the 3 ½ month, 600-mile march from Poland to West Germany. Giannoni describes his deployment, sailing to Liverpool in a convoy of 20 ships and training in the North Sea where they shot 12-gauge shotguns for two weeks. “The pilot was the only person to score better than me,” he writes. Finally they were stationed in Rattlesden, England. Of the June 18 mission:
…We’re on a bombing mission to Misburg, Germany, which is an oil refinery between Hamburg and Hanover. The flak from the 88 mil on the ground was very thick and our group was flying at around 20,000 feet,,, a shell hit us in the left wing at the #1 engine, setting it on fire. We had just dropped our bombs as we got hit… The bomb bay doors were still open. I rushed to see the damage and if the fire could be put out. …there was nothing we could do. We notified the pilot, and he said over the intercom for everyone to bail out. We all bailed out, nine of us, except the pilot, who was killed. As I was floating down in my parachute, I saw the plane explode.
Giannoni goes on to describe his capture, interrogation, life in the POW camp, and the march from February 6 to May 5, 1945. “Most of us had dysentery, diarrhea, or typhus from the amount of lice we had on us… also, pneumonia, frost bite, you name it! During this time we had no food or water. We scrounged for food, ate grass, stole potatoes. Some guys ate raw chickens, rats, anything they could get their hands on… I weighed between 100 and 110 lbs. when liberated.”
I found another name in Mark’s letters, ‘Ez Geddes.” Not one to leave a stone unturned in my quest for a story, I located Ez, now 91, who told me a bit more about Mark, “I remember swimming with him in the ocean near La Jolla one day and how exhausted I was swimming to a floating marker and back to the beach. He swam effortlessly while I ran out of fuel and was exhausted with some distance still to go.” Ez hadn’t known what happened to Mark. He wrote, “I am saddened to learn of Mark's disappearance and likely death. He was a moral person, intelligent, and of above average physical health and well-being. I thought he had considerable potential for success in whatever he chose to do.”
It was due to Mark’s courage and leadership that his crew escaped the plane and their lives were spared. His story was only one of thousands of examples of bravery and heroism in defense of our nation. I hope in reading Mark’s story, you are inspired to conduct some research on a hero of your own.